If you had to describe a holiday based on its menu, the word for Thanksgiving would be carbs. Mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, rolls with a little turkey thrown in for good measure, of course. It occured to me as I enjoyed my holiday meal that carbs have gotten a bad rap lately. With so many people adopting a low carb lifestyle and diets like keto being all the rage, carbs have really been vilified. But if you ask me, carbs have an important place in our diet – they are the body’s primary energy source – and should be embraced instead of avoided.
I feel like a lot of the negativity around carbs stems from misunderstanding. There are good carbs and bad carbs; carbs that you should incorporate into your meals and those you should avoid. Here’s my best attempt at breaking it down so you can easily figure out what is what.
There are two categories of carbohydrates – simple and complex. Foods fall into either category based on what they’re made of and how your body breaks them down. Some people think simple carbs are bad and complex carbs are good. But it’s not as simple as that because not all carbs are created equal. When considering carbs, you really have to look at the quality.
- Oranges, pears, apples, milk, cookies, muffins, soda and candy. These are all foods that are considered simple carbohydrates. But obviously they are not all nutritionally equal. So what’s the difference? Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars that are just a part of the food’s nutritional make up. They also contain fiber and vitamins that are essential to health. The others contain processed sugar that was made in a factory and little if any fiber or vitamins at all. When you eat them you may get a sudden and short burst of energy that is quickly followed up by a crash and then cravings for more processed carbs.
- Complex carbohydrates are broken down more slowly by your body. They contain essential fiber, vitamins and nutrients. Complex carbs give you sustained energy without the energy spikes and dips. But, the key here is to focus on whole-grain and nutrient-dense complex carbs. For example you want to choose foods like whole-wheat flour, quinoa, brown rice, barley, corn, beans and oats over processed foods like white rice, white bread and pasta.
You’ll notice in both categories, the factor that differentiates the good from the bad is processing. Processed foods usually contain added sugar, fat, sodium and preservatives to make them taste better and stay fresh longer. Here’s my advice when you’re choosing carbs or any other food — stick to eating mostly whole foods in their natural state and avoid foods that come in a package. It’s as simple as that.
Check out this piece from Eat This, Not That for more info on the healthiest carbs you can eat. If you’re unsure what foods will work for you, consider our personalized nutrition program for a diet designed specifically for you.